The Panama Maritime Authority has revoked the registration of rescue ship Aquarius under “blatant and political pressure” from the Italian authorities, removing the last non-governmental search and rescue vessel from Mediterranean waters, NGOs SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said in a statement
They said they were “reeling from the announcement by the Panama Maritime Authority” that was forced to revoke the vessel’s registration. This news comes as rescue NGOs Mission Lifeline and Sea Watch all have rescue units impounded in Malta.
This condemned hundreds of men, women and children desperate to reach safety to a watery grave, and “deals a major blow to the life-saving humanitarian mission of the Aquarius, the only remaining non-governmental search and rescue vessel in the Central Mediterranean,” they said.
Both organisations demanded European governments allow the Aquarius to continue its mission by stating to the Panamanian authorities that threats made by the Italian government were unfounded or by immediately issuing a new flag under which the vessel could sail.
The Aquarius team said it was shocked when it was informed of an official communication from the Panamanian authorities on Saturday, saying the Italian authorities had urged the Panama Maritime Authority to take “immediate action” against the Aquarius.
The maritime authority said, “unfortunately, it is necessary that [the Aquarius] be excluded from our registry, because it implies a political problem against the Panamanian government and the Panamanian fleet that arrive to European ports.”
This came about in spite of the fact that the rescue vessel met all maritime standards and was in full compliance with rigorous technical specifications as required under the Panama flag.
SOS Mediterranee and MSF strongly denounced the actions as further proof of the extent to which the Italian government was willing to go, knowing that the only consequence “is that people will continue to die at sea and that no witnesses will be present to count the dead”.
“European leaders appear to have no qualms implementing increasingly abusive and vicious tactics that serve their own political interests at the expense of human lives,” said Karline Kleijer, MSF’s Head of Emergencies.
For the past two years, European leaders claimed that people should not die at sea while following “dangerous and ill-informed policies” that led to the death of hundreds of people.
“This tragedy has to end, but that can only happen if EU governments allow the Aquarius and other search and rescue vessels to continue providing lifesaving assistance and bearing witness where it is so desperately needed,” Kleijer said.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 1,250 people have drowned while attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean, the NGOs said. This figure does not take into consideration the deaths that are not registered.
The Aquarius team was informed of the deregistration while it was involved in an active search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean.
Over the past three days, Aquarius assisted two boats in distress and now has 58 survivors on board, “several of whom are psychologically distressed and fatigued from their journeys at sea and experiences in Libya”. These need to be disembarked urgently in a place of safety in line with international maritime law, the NGOs said.